How Good a Wood Engraver was Edward LEE?

In the last third of the nineteenth century, my great-grandfather, Edward LEE (1840-1898) was employed as a wood engraver on the colonial illustrated newspapers in Melbourne. In June 2016, I was fortunate enough to have an article published in the Ancestor journal of the Genealogical Society of Victoria (GSV) detailing Edward’s working life in Australia.  The article is entitled…

‘Shades of Grey: the Colonial Wood Engraver, Edward Lee’

…and you can see a copy of it on the ‘Publications’ page of my blog.

Since writing the article, I wondered…how good a wood engraver was Edward?

A chance finding of a journal article by Michèle Martin, entitled, ‘Nineteenth Century Wood Engravers at Work: Mass Production of Illustrated Periodicals (1840-1880)’ published in 2014 has helped me shed some light on Edward’s possible level of competence and consequent standing in the hierarchy of image making in the printing business. NB Technically, prior to the use of photomechanical processes by the late 1880s, wood engravings were the only way imagery could be displayed in the printed press.

Firstly, a recap of Edward LEE (1840-1898) in Australia

c1870s Presumed to be Edward LEE (1840-1898). Photo courtesy of Lee relatives in USA.

Edward LEE arrived in Melbourne in 1863 as a 23-year-old. The passenger list of the ship, Prince of Wales, classifies him as a ‘trader’ from London.

The London Post Office Directory of the early 1860s lists an ‘Edward Lee, wood engraver, The Strand, London’ but I can’t find any evidence to confirm this was him. 1 A more obscure name would have been helpful!

In Australia, Edward can be identified by his monogram, E Lee or E L, on engravings published in the colonial illustrated newspapers in Melbourne during the years 1871-1885. The engraver’s monogram was usually engraved at the lower right hand corner of the engraving.

There is evidence that Edward did not always work on the newspapers. In 1872 he went into business with John Thomas RICHARDSON in Melbourne, as detailed in the advertisement below. The pair described themselves as ‘draughtsmen and engravers on wood’.

1872 Advertisement for Lee and Richardson 3 Collins St West in Melbourne Punch 26 December 1872. Accessed through TROVE

Transcription of ad:

Pictorial and Mechanical
Sketches of Machinery and Buildings taken with the greatest accuracy and Drawn and Engraved on Wood at most moderate Charges

Collins Street West was west of Elizabeth Street and numbering began at the Elizabeth St end, so the business would have been located very close to the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets.

The business partnership was short-lived, however, as Richardson left Melbourne in 1874 to accept a £100 commission to do a painting in Sydney. During the partnership the two men entered six engravings in the Fine Arts Section of the Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition 2 for which they received an honourable mention. 3

Search the LEE tag for further information about the family.

Some examples of wood engravings by Edward LEE and Lee and Richardson

Many of Edward’s engravings, with and without Richardson, can be seen on the State Library of Victoria (SLV) website. Some are also listed on the National Library of Australia (NLA) website. The engravings were mainly featured in the Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers (IAN), a newspaper published by the proprietors of The Age, the Syme brothers, Ebenezer and David.

The wood engravings featured below were downloaded from the SLV website. The stories associated with the imagery can be accessed through the digitized newspapers on Trove.

Maximilian Creek, near Gladstone, North Gipps Land, Photographer, C. Walter, Lee, engraver, IAN 23 April 1872, p. 97. Image courtesy of SLV

Port Darwin Rush. The S.S. Omeo leaving the Sandridge Railway Pier. Creators: Lee & J. T. Richardson, IAN 10 Oct 1872. P. 205. Image courtesy of SLV

Scene on the Upper Yarra, near Fernshaw. E LEE, engraver, after photograph by C. Walters. Illustrated Australian News (IAN) 21 May 1872, page 121. Image courtesy of SLV

Bream Creek, Wood engraving by E Lee, IAN 29 February 1872, p. 60. Image courtesy of SLV

The Orange Orchard of Mr. Pye, Parramatta, NSW. Illustrated Sydney News (ISN), 25 November 1871, p. 40. Artist AC Cooke and Engraver E LEE. Image courtesy of SLV.

The engraving below shows a herd of cattle on their way to the stockyards in Flemington via Elizabeth Street. It’s hard to imagine in present day busy Elizabeth Street. What a frightening sight to come across at night…

Drove of Cattle for the Melbourne Market. Wood engraving. Creators, Lee and Richardson, IAN 13 Aug 1872, p.5. Image courtesy of SLV.

…as is hinted at in a snippet from the accompanying article…

Snippet from article accompanying the engraving ‘Drove of Cattle for the Melbourne Market’. IAN 13 August 1872, p. 2. Accessed through Trove.

So, Edward was more than an ‘Engraver’?

As mentioned Edward was classified as a ‘draughtsman’ as well as an engraver. He interchanged his occupation, ‘engraver’ or ‘engraver and draughtsman’ on the birth certificates of his children.

A ‘draughtsman’ was responsible for transferring the illustrator’s/artist’s drawings onto the wood blocks. The engravers then set to work engraving the draught and the finished block was inserted into the letterpress ready for printing. Reprints were made from the same blocks for interstate newspapers. According to Martin,

‘…it was the draughtsmen…who were seen as creators of original illustrations and thus as artists…’ 4

So, if Edward had limited artistic leeway as the engraver he had more opportunity for interpretation as the draughtsman.

Was Edward classified as an artist then?

According to Martin, a skilled engraver was called an ‘artist’. The artist was one who had attained a level of skill that was ‘beyond the factory floor’.

On the death of Edward’s brother, George Williams LEE, in June 1864 only 14 months after Edward’s arrival in Australia (see ‘George Lee, Pompous Git or Good Bloke?’ on Publications page), Edward is described as an ‘artist’ on George’s probate papers (see below).

1864 Probate papers for George Williams LEE. Died intestate. George’s brother, Edward LEE, to be the administrator of George’s ‘goods’. Accessed online through the Public Records Office of Victoria PROV. VPRS 28/P0 unit 49, item 4/828

I haven’t been able to find any information about Edward’s training in wood engraving but it’s more than likely that he did his training in England before emigrating to Australia.

…the length of the apprenticeship…lasted between 5 and 7 years, during which the pupil started by learning to imitate what the master was doing and if he was talented, eventually became an autonomous engraver. Very few however, reached that level. Some considered those who did as “artists” even when they were only doing interpretation of drawings or paintings…’5

…maybe Edward was one of those talented pupils.

In conclusion…

I don’t think there’s any doubt Edward Lee was a skilled engraver/draughtsman. I’d have no hesitation in calling him an ‘artist’. Unfortunately, though, for Edward and the others in his profession the work dried up by the late 1880s. Photomechanical processes had advanced to such a level that photographs could be incorporated into the printing making engravings redundant.

Since writing the article in Ancestor I’ve learned that the move by Edward and his family to Bullarto, near Daylesford, in the 1890s was more likely to have been due to a dire economic situation related to a depression and Edward’s probable unemployment than to an elective move to a nice retirement in the country.

A personal communication from Marilyn Kenny of the Essendon Historical Society in response to my article describes the establishment of ‘Village Settlements’ for the unemployed—‘a quasi utopian scheme to resettle workers on the land to become self sufficient’—land in Bullarto being one of them. It must have been a difficult move for essentially ‘city folk’ like the Lees to move to the bush. But if they hadn’t, Edward’s daughter, Grace, would not have met Peter Coghlan and I wouldn’t be here writing this piece!


Coghlan, Margaret, ‘Shades of Grey: the Colonial Wood Engraver, Edward Lee’, Ancestor, Vol. 33, Issue 2 (June 2016), pp. 4-7.

Coghlan, Margaret, ‘George Lee, Pompous Git or Good Bloke?’, Ancestor, Vol. 33, Issue 5 (March 2017), pp.9-11.

Martin, Michèle, ‘Nineteenth Century Wood Engravers at Work: Mass Production of Illustrated Periodicals (1840-1880)’, Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol. 27, No.1 (March 2014), pp.132-150.


  1. RK Engen, Dictionary of Victorian wood engravers, Teaneck N.J: Chadwyk-Healey, Cambridge, 1985, p.153.
  2. The Exhibition. Opening Ceremony. The Exhibition Described. Paintings, Advocate, 9 November 1872, p.7.
  3. The Exhibition. Fine Arts. Section 3 Miscellaneous. Honourable Mentions, Argus, 10 January 1873, p.6.
  4. Michèle Martin, ‘Nineteenth Century Wood Engravers at Work: Mass Production of Illustrated Periodicals (1840-1880)’, Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol. 27, No.1 (March 2014), p.142.
  5. Ibid., p.138.
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10 Responses to How Good a Wood Engraver was Edward LEE?

  1. Richard A Winter says:

    Thanks Marg…….Ed Winter (Ireland) and i hsve become good correspondents…..Richard Winter

  2. Howard Winter says:

    Hi Margaret this is very interesting, hope to see you soon.


  3. brian cockerall says:

    Have always admired the work of engravers in old newspapers, working in negative to create a positive. I played with B&W photo negatives in my younger days but that was easy-peasy compared to engraving. The detail in “Drove of cattle…” is amazing. Mr. Lee was an ‘artist’. Brian C.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks Brian!
      Yes, I agree, Edward was definitely highly skilled and deserves the title of ‘artist’. It’s a pity Dad didn’t know about Edward’s work. It’s interesting to hear about your dabbling in B&W photo negatives as my Dad was a great dabbler too, turning the bathroom into a darkroom in his early married life.
      Cheers, Marg.

  4. Rosemary says:

    Marg, very interesting reading about our talented great-grandfather. Thank you. I certainly admire his engravings. Rosemary x

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